How often do we use the phrase “disaster of biblical proportions?” This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Bo, details the final three plagues of the Ten Plagues of Exodus. We can look at this narrative from several different angles.
One is homiletical; the biblical story teaches us about God’s entry into history as a force for liberation –at least on the side of the Israelites. The plagues are then supernatural, they serve as a vehicle to show God’s power to intervene in human affairs. They do not require any other explanation, and later commentators take pains to tell us that each of these plagues was unlike any natural phenomena they might resemble.
Another angle is naturalistic: The biblical account of the plagues is based on historical events and describes natural phenomena. One view holds that the plagues are not separate unrelated natural disasters befalling the Egyptians but a logical unfolding of a environmental and climactic disaster.
Ziony Zevit writes:
The most sophisticated attempt to relate the Egyptian plagues to natural phenomena does so in terms of Egypt’s ecosystem. According to this interpretation, the first six plagues can even be explained in their sequential order: The naturalistic account is connected initially with the violent rain storms that occur in the mountains of Ethiopia. The first plague, blood, is the red clay swept down into the Nile from the Ethiopian highlands. The mud then choked the fish in the area inhabited by the Israelites. The fish clogged the swamps where the frogs lived; the fish, soon infected with anthrax, caused the frogs (the second plague) to leave the Nile for cool areas, taking refuge in people’s houses. But, since the frogs were already infected with the disease, they died in their new habitats. As a consequence, lice, the third plague, and flies, the fourth plague, began to multiply, feeding off the dead frogs. This gave rise to a pestilence that attacked animals, the fifth plague, because the cattle were feeding on grass which by then had also become infected. In man, the symptom of the same disease was boils, the sixth plague.The word used for the fourth plague, arov, could mean flies or it could mean wild beasts. The wild beasts meaning also fits into a narrative of unfolding ecological destruction: if undomesticated mammals outside of settled areas became infected with anthrax or other diseases, predators would have nothing to eat and possibly become carriers of the diseases. Starving, the predators, such as wolves and tigers, would enter into settled areas they would normally shun, and infect the livestock, causing the fifth plague.
The last four plagues, hail, locusts, darkness and the death of the firstborn, do not immediately seem to fit in the chain of cause and effect we can find in the first six. Could there be one event, one calamity, that could unleash a chain of effects starting with infection of the water supply and ending with outbreaks of insects and diseases as well as non-biological phenomena as hail and darkness?
Perhaps they are connected: Locusts usually swarm when there is a scarcity of food. In desert areas this could happen when it rains on usually arid areas and then stops. The locusts multiply on the fresh grasses that come up and then have nothing to eat. So maybe an unusual weather pattern caused excessive rains in North Africa, indirectly giving rise to locust swarm and also caused hail in Egypt, which is very unusual. The darkness? If locusts strip the land of all vegetation, than the soil is easily carried away by winds, causing dust storms, which are common in the region.
Another perspective on the interrelatedness of the plagues:
In his book The Plagues of Egypt: Archaeology, History, and Science Look at the Bible, Siro Igino Trevisanato explores the theory that the plagues were initially caused by the Santorini eruption in Greece. His hypothesis considers a two-stage eruption over a time of a bit less than two years. His studies place the first eruption in 1602 BC, when volcanic ash taints the Nile, causing the first plague and forming a catalyst for many of the subsequent plagues. In 1600 BC, the plume of a Santorini eruption caused the ninth plague, the days of darkness. Trevisanato hypothesizes that the Egyptians (at that time under the occupation of Hyksos), resorted to human sacrifice in an attempt to appease the gods, for they had viewed the ninth plague as a precursor to more. This human sacrifice became known as the tenth plague.Now, if the plagues are in fact multiple manifestations of a single natural event, what meanings can we derive from this?
Perhaps it means that the plagues, as well as Pharaoh’s resistance, were pre-ordained. This explanation fits a larger theological strand of Judaism, which says that history was predestined to bring the Israelites into Egypt, become enslaved, and liberated by Moses in order to fulfill God’s plan. In other words, the supernatural was natural.
No more “acts of God”
We now live in a world where we have so disrupted the natural order of things that no plague, no disaster, no flood, hurricane, drought, epidemic, outbreak—not even any earthquake-- can be considered purely a natural event free of human causation. We face a world where the victims of global warming will demand reparation from those who profited from creating it. In our Egypt situation, the plagues are not bought down by Moses, the plagues are not created by God, are not manifestations of the blind impersonal forces of nature, but have been conjured up by Pharaoh and his magicians.
Where is God in all this, then? Well we can’t assume that God will intervene in history and miraculously save us from the fate humans have created. Rather, it can be our belief in our power as God’s vehicles to create a world and societies realizing a divine promise of our true potential.